Adventuresome NUMA sea-explorer/relic-hunter Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) is chasing down a priceless historical curiosity with his sidekick Al Giordino (Steve Zahn) when they come upon a lovely do-gooder (Penelope Cruz) chasing down evil and corruption on roughly the same road. This turns out to be exceedingly fortunate for her, as Pitt is an explorer in the "Indiana Jones" vein and thus equally proficient with guns, slugfests and other sundry derring-do as he is at treasure-hunting. Much shooting and chasing ensues as secrets are unearthed, bad guys are dispatched and jokes are cracked.
The above not only describes the basic outline of "Sahara" but also the basic outline of nearly every adventure Pitt undertakes in Clive Cussler's massive series of novels starring the character. Therefore, it's understood that this film, an adaptation of Cussler's first Pitt novel, is intended not merely as one movie but as the "pilot" for a hoped-for series of Cussler/Pitt-adaptations. (Don't think for a minute that the phrases "the next James Bond!!!!!" didn't cross any lips as this was being greenlit.)
For this first go-round, the Big Shiny drawing Pitt's attention is a Civil War ironclad that may or may not have floated all the way to Africa and up a river that was eventually absorbed into the Sahara desert. Cruz is on hand as a World Health Organization doctor tracking the outbreak of a mysterious plague in the same region. Lennie James as a vicious African warlord and Lambert Wilson as a leering French industrialist are the bad guys who fight with the zeal of those unaware that Pitt has something like twenty-or-more books ahead of him.
Cussler is, apparently, less-than-thrilled with the film, but it matches the source at least in that it's entirely a like-it-or-leave-it endeavor: However you usually feel about films in which handsome adventurers dig up treasure and shoot it out with villians in exotic far-flung locales is likely to be how you feel about "Sahara." Let it be said, then, that McConaughey makes a suitable adventurer if perhaps a touch less refined than his incarantion in the books, and that the film delivers it's promised action if perhaps a touch over-edited. Penelope Cruz has yet to deliver a single truly noteworthy onscreen performance, and that she continues her streak here is demonstrable of the hype of her being "the Latina Julia Roberts" was absolutely spot-on in all the ways they didn't want.
Since the film IS, after all, a long (but briskly-paced,) advertisement for MORE Dirk Pitt films, it's central action falls into a "you like this? wanna see more?" groove and runs with it: Pitt and Giordino get into scrapes, think their way out with (usually) explosive/entertaining results, and meanwhile their gruff but lovable benefactor (William H. Macy) frets about all the equipment their busting up but still shows himself to be a winking co-hero in his own right by shaking down beaurocrats to help the boys out. It's obvious that the film is pitching all of this as something they've got more of if you want it, and that's okay because it's at least being honest.
Here's the bottom line: The audience that's going to like this is going to like this. You know who you are. You saw the trailer, maybe you were familiar with the books, you saw Pitt riding that sand-sailing rig he builds out of an old wrecked plain, you said "hey, that looks kinda cool!" It is kinda cool, and you won't be sorry you saw it. The boxoffice will decide if Pitt heads off into a sequel, but for now you could do a lot worse than this one.
FINAL RATING: 7/10